See Contemporary Culture in Berkeley

1. Where to Stay

One of Berkeley City Club’s most striking features is its pool; rooms at Hotel Shattuck Plaza are filled with bold colors and patterns.Photo: Courtesy of Berkeley City Club (L); courtesy of Hotel Shattuck Plaza (R)

Storm the castle at the Berkeley City Club (from $145), a treasured architectural relic that first opened in 1930 as a women’s social club, located within walking distance of the Telegraph Avenue shopping strip. The stone structure is home to 35 elegant, if old-fashioned, rooms (many with views of the Golden Gate Bridge). Common spaces featuring Romanesque and Moorish details are grand, especially the indoor pool built underneath a dramatic arched ceiling.

Pay tribute to the area’s radical past at Hotel Shattuck Plaza (from $155), a 93-year-old option that reopened after a 2009 renovation with sixties-era peace signs and checkerboard floors alongside finer touches like Murano glass chandeliers. Located just a block from the downtown BART station, it’s a good choice if you’re also planning to explore San Francisco.

Show some school spirit at Hotel Durant (from $159), where the dorm-inspired décor pairs bong-shaped table lamps and vintage yearbook photos with adult amenities like high-thread-count sheets and down-filled duvets. The blue and gold color scheme pays tribute to UC Berkeley, whose lush campus is within stumbling distance of the hotel. Request a room on one of the upper floors facing the back to avoid the sounds of late-night college life.

2. Where to Eat

The menu and décor at Gather are both dedicated to sustainability.Photo: Courtesy of Gather

Embrace the local green ethos at Gather, a three-year-old eatery in a LEED platinum-certified building, where recycled materials ranging from leather belts to bottles line the dining room. An on-site “source book” details the history of the locally raised animals and foraged produce served in unique dishes like cream of salt-roasted rutabaga soup ($9) and wild boar terrine with bourbon and peanut mustard ($14).

Settle into the peaceful back rose garden at Slow, a pint-size two-year-old café where down-home BBQ technique meets farm-to-table flavors in the form of pulled pork sandwiches topped with ginger-pickled jalapeno and arugula ($6.75). The dinner menu offers tasty but expensive small plates, so stick to the lunchtime sandwiches ($6.25–$8.25), served on crispy bread from the popular Acme bread company, for a better deal.

Taste the fruits of Berkeley’s Communist-meets-cosmopolitan mindset at the Cheeseboard Collective, a 43-year-old worker-owned bakery that draws huge lines for California-style pizza ($2.50 per slice) topped with upscale ingredients like dinosaur kale, Bosc pears, and sage oil. There’s only one type of pizza served each day, so check the weekly schedule before you go to see the menu and find out which local bands are playing in the small café area.

3. What to Do

Berkeley Rep is a Tony Award-winning theater company that produces critically acclaimed new plays.Photo: Courtesy of Berkeley Rep

See what’s onstage at Berkeley Rep, a venerable theater company that began its life as a storefront in 1968 but now produces nationally acclaimed performances and launches productions that land on Broadway and beyond. Among the upcoming shows is the world premiere of Pulitzer-winning journalist Lawrence Wright’s Fallaci (March 8 to April 21; tickets from $29). Arrive early to weekend performances for free pre-show tastings from local distilleries, winemakers, and chocolatiers, starting at 7 p.m.

Trek through Berkeley’s copious green space during a morning spent learning the latest West Coast fitness craze: hiking yoga ($20). Ninety-minute Saturday morning classes begin on the Cal campus, mixing cardio and downward dog as you hike up hills and take in sweeping San Francisco Bay views. Be sure to register in advance to secure a spot.

Check out a wide range of visual arts at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive ($10), which houses an eclectic collection that ranges from Rothko and Pollack to experimental cinema from the early twentieth century, plus special exhibitions like Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s dreamy Morakot video art installation (through April 21). Don’t miss the biweekly Friday evening L@TE series ($7), when the galleries are open until 9 p.m. and feature D.J. sets and other performances.

4. Insider’s Tip

Tiny owls have become a wintertime phenomenon in César Chávez Park.Photo: Paul Sullivan, via Flickr

The local mania of the moment has nothing to do with a burgeoning artistic movement or a hot new restaurant; instead, it’s the exceedingly cute burrowing owls that spend each winter at César Chávez Park along the waterfront. Spotted frequently this season, these little anthropomorphic creatures have become the town’s unofficial mascots, growing so popular that the Golden Gate Audubon Society now has docents on hand at the park (just north of the Berkeley Marina) during weekends to help visitors owl-spot during prime watching season (through early April).

5. Oddball Day

Telegraph Avenue is home to the city's iconic stores.Photo: Jane Hammons, via Flickr

Put Berkeley’s new-school charms on hold and explore its longstanding institutions. Begin the day at Caffe Mediterraneum—“The Med” to locals—a coffee shop and former haunt of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg where the latte ($3.50) is said to have been invented. Join a free student-led tour of UC Berkeley’s historic campus or wander the green grounds yourself, taking in the view from atop the 307-foot-tall Campanile clock tower ($2); then stroll over to People’s Park, where the Free Speech Movement sprung up in sixties. Walk 30 minutes for a house-smoked pastrami sandwich on challah ($12.95) at the iconic Saul’s Deli, then backtrack to the legendary shops along Telegraph Avenue, making stops to browse the sprawling used book collection at 44-year-old Moe’s Books and every kind of album you could ever hope to find at Amoeba Records. Make your dinner reservations a month ahead of time for the original locavore spot, Alice Waters’s Chez Panisse, still serving a quite reasonably priced $28 menu du jour in the upper-level café. Staying within walking distance, join in a bluegrass jam session or see a classic singer-songwriter like Janis Ian perform at the Freight and Salvage Coffeehouse (tickets from $20.50), a quirky concert venue that opened in a former furniture store in 1968 and, despite upgraded digs, still feels like a place where that decade never ended. Round out the night with a punk rock set at 924 Gilman, a gritty DIY all-ages music venue that attracts an only-in-Berkeley crowd ranging from 12-year-old skaters to aging ponytailed folk rockers.

6. Links

Find the latest on bars, music, and events in Berkeley and surrounding communities via East Bay Express.

Check out independent news site Berkeleyside’s Nosh blog for the latest restaurant openings.

Determine the closest place to sample IPAs near any given subway stop using the Beer by BART guide.

See Contemporary Culture in Berkeley